The curators of the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival want you to rise from the couch, put down your smartphone and back away from the Netflix.
The 2015 festival runs from April 9-16 this year, screening more than 150 titles and providing a boost to Madison’s economy. It also offers entertainment, culture and education to curious audience members who are able to catch films they won’t see elsewhere.
This year, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club, a homegrown film on local dining institutions, sold out two screenings in short order, prompting festival organizers to add a third. The fest is showing more films downtown, including renting a state-of-the-art projector for the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater. And the festival is welcoming wee cinephiles with a cool new series geared for families called “Big Screens, Little Folks,” offering a captivating lineup of animated and live-action films from around the world.
The work of Orson Welles is being featured in honor of the 100th anniversary of the great director’s birth; the offerings include his newly rediscovered first film, Too Much Johnson. Special series include New German Cinema, Emerging French Women Directors and Futures (compelling first features from around the world).
Rampaging lions, outsider artists, recovering addicts, Spanish squatters, Cambodian rockers and a kidnapped lesbian Syrian blogger are just a sampling of the diverse and surprising offerings from the 2015 festival that caught the attention of Isthmus reviewers.
Newcomers to this sober living arrangement should take note: The bathtub’s not for bathing. It’s where the fermented tea is made.
That tea is one of numerous quirky details in Stinking Heaven, an elliptically told story of recovering addicts and their efforts to stay clean and get along with each other. They live in a home overseen by Jim (Keith Poulson), who is firm on the house rules but shaky on how to meet the therapeutic needs of his vulnerable tenants. There is a wedding, and there are recriminations, and there are reenactments of past traumas.
A brief 70 minutes, Stinking Heaven was directed by Nathan Silver and shot using vintage video equipment. It’s modest in its ambitions and intensely felt. Movies like this are part of the essential texture of film festivals.
— Kenneth Burns
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll
I always hated the Eagles’ song, “Hotel California.” I abruptly changed my mind in 2007 while living in Phnom Penh when I heard a Cambodian band perform a gorgeous version of it. The original had been etched into my brain from hearing it countless times, but this version — in Khmai translation, with words I didn’t understand — carried a sorrow and depth I’d never noticed.
I’m not the first person to find revelation in seeing my culture reflected back through another’s. Such moments explain the popularity of Cambodian Rocks, bootleg compilations of the vibrant and indelible rock scene that existed there in the ’60s and ’70s. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll by John Pirozzi lovingly documents that country’s rock ’n’ roll era, through the voices of those who lived it.
That’s no easy task. Most of the prominent stars of this scene — including Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, Yol Aularong and Ros Serey Sothea — were killed after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge overthrew the government in 1975, ushering in years of genocide, starvation and terror.
Household names in Phnom Penh, they were largely unknown to the rest of the world. But the recordings that survive show these musicians fully absorbing influences from the around the globe: garage and surf rock, soul, British invasion, psychedelic and Calypso.
They recorded many covers: The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” Them’s “Gloria,” the Carpenters’ “Superstar.” Some of them aren’t always immediately recognizable, but often the artists improve on the songs. But it’s the originals that resonate most, as the musicians give traditional Khmai music a modern bent.
Pirozzi’s interviews with the survivors make clear that music was their passion. They approached the world with joy and hope, which makes what’s coming all the more painful to watch. He outlines how the scene emerged, what it meant to those who lived it and what little we know about what happened to the musicians.
The film may err on the side of being a little too nostalgic about life in Cambodia during the ’60s — there was lots of poverty and corruption. But this can be forgiven, as it reflects the viewpoints of those who remember the time with love.
It isn’t just art that links Cambodia to the United States. While Cambodians may have loved our music, they also became victims of our proxy war, as the film makes clear. U.S. warplanes bombed much of the country back into the 16th century and propped up a brutal dictator, paving the way for the Khmer Rouge to take power. With the country in ruins, the United States walked away.
Even though the United States inspired the country’s artists, it also helped destroy them. Cambodia has yet to recover. The spirit — and the recordings — endure. And like this film, that’s both a terrible sorrow and a triumph.
— Joe Tarr
Most likely the worst film ever screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival, but a cinch to be an audience favorite this year. In this 1981 movie, power couple Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren prove that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they bankrolled this $17 million pro-conservation drama and put themselves, their grown children (including Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith) and a heck of a lot of untamed lions in front of multiple cameras.
You’re never sure if you should laugh or scream in outrage at this folly. The first time a lion leaps and tackles Marshall, you can’t believe what you’ve just seen. Then you can’t believe that the film plays this same absurd note for its duration. I saw the 85-minute cut; the camp value was depleted after 40. Hopefully, festival audience members will rally each other through the 102-minute extended cut, because, I must admit, there are true spectacles to behold.
Always teetering on the brink of incompetence, the filmmakers did at least secure a seal from the Humane Society assuring that no animals were harmed. But 70 cast and crew members were injured, including young Griffith, who required reconstructive facial surgery.
— James Kreul
Sapience is “knowledge that leads to wisdom — all other knowledge is useless,” suggests director Eugène Green in a recent Sight & Sound interview: “La Sapienza” also refers to the University of Rome, home to the Church of St. Yves, designed by Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. In La Sapienza, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), a successful but artistically frustrated architect, seeks inspiration, knowledge and wisdom by touring Borromini’s masterpieces.
His wife, Aliénor (Christelle Prot), travels with him, but their cold interactions indicate that they have grown apart. They meet a teenage girl, Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), who suffers from dizzy spells, and when they help her get home they discover her older brother, Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) is an aspiring architect. The siblings have a profound impact on the couple, and Goffredo reminds Alexandre that a space is never empty when it is filled with light.
The seemingly affectless performances and monotonal dialogue might turn off audiences not familiar with cinematic predecessors like Robert Bresson. But American-born Green has also led a revival of baroque theatrical technique in France, where conversations are often delivered directly to the camera. Like Borromini’s architecture, the highly logical design and precise execution of the film delivers a surprisingly rich emotional experience.
— James Kreul
This documentary follows the late-in-life discovery of the ancient, good natured and half-paralyzed painter Peter Anton, who lives in East Chicago, Ind., in a decrepit house made of mold and memories. What begins as yet another documentary celebrating the greatness of an outsider artist becomes much darker when it is revealed that Anton has not been entirely truthful about his past. That’s when Anton and the film become more nuanced, and the audience is allowed to judge the qualities of both the man and the artist. This shift of perspective also helps us forgive the film’s greatest flaw: the presence of the self-glorifying documentarian. At first, Dan Rybicky (who co-directed with Aaron Wickenden) seems to be flaunting his heroism in saving this unknown talent, but, once the truth is revealed, the directors become an integral part of Anton’s story. Yes, they might be exploiting Anton a little, but he might be exploiting them right back.
— Craig Johnson
The world can be an incomprehensible place, as anyone who has ever had reason to ask,“Why are things this way?” can attest.
Speculation Nation, the documentary by Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat, spends 74 minutes contemplating this question in relation to the Spanish housing crisis. But the filmmakers don’t look for answers.
Brown and Gruffat focus on the ordinary Spaniards who have lost their homes or are about to. We meet squatters who moved into apartment buildings that were never finished, protesters who stake out tent cities in front of banks, and others who go back to the earth — literally — by moving into caves around Granada. Although the filmmakers are sympathetic to these folks, the film ends up feeling nihilistic.
That’s not because the film’s subjects don’t have compelling stories. These are the most interesting voices to hear from, but they’re not the only ones. What’s missing is context. Why is the world this way? How might it be fixed?
Derivatives and collateralized loan obligations are mentioned once in passing, but other than that, we never hear from the villains or anyone who might explain this mess.
In a final scene, during a festival in Valencia, models of banks are burned as the crowd cheerfully watches. It’s a satisfying moment, but one completely devoid of hope or understanding.
— Joe Tarr
Ride the Pink Horse
The plot of Ride the Pink Horse is unimportant — something about revenge and blackmail. It’s the execution of the plot that makes it remarkable. The movie upends every film noir trope it can find. From its New Mexican setting to its children’s book title, it leads to the creeping suspicion that the movie is really a coming-of-age story about the power of friendship dressed up as a noir. The big bad guy looks like a math teacher. His goons wear cowboy hats. The cool hero (Robert Montgomery, who also directs) literally sweats his way through the third act.
Half the town seems to be stalking the film’s hero, and the camera follows suit. When it’s not watching him from behind, it’s trailing him in long, roving takes. Instead of showing a horrific beating, the lens focuses on stunned children watching from a spinning carousel. These quirky touches make Pink Horse a very exciting ride.
— Craig Johnson
The Amina Profile
It was a squalid sideshow to the Arab Spring. A writer named Amina captivated readers with her blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Then, it seemed, she was abducted amid the unrest roiling Syria. And then, it turned out, she was actually...
Well, I’ll refrain from disclosing what happened, in case you weren’t reading headlines that week in 2011. My memories of these events were hazy, so the documentary The Amina Profile had the effect on me that director Sophie Deraspe presumably intended. She uses techniques from suspense cinema — shadowy faces, eerie music, selectively withheld information — as she tells the story from the perspective of Sandra Bagaria, a Montreal resident who struck up an online romance with Amina.
It’s a bracing, well-made film that left me angry and sad. But I’m not sure it honors the suffering people of Syria, who deserve to have their plight documented in a clear-eyed way. Deraspe cheapens this material with her pulpy flourishes.
— Kenneth Burns
Britni West’s name appears in previous festival films — she was the set decorator on last year’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter — but her feature directorial debut truly stands out among the micro-budgeted indies this year. Shot in her hometown of Kalispell, Mont., Tired Moonlight follows a series of characters who occasionally cross paths as we catch a glimpse of the American heartland in the background.
Visually, we only have access to the surface level of their lives, but occasionally we hear contemplative Terrence Malick-style voice-over soliloquies, some of which are actual poems. Paul, a sad sack with a few problems interacting socially, is played by poet Paul Dickinson. Many lovely moments involve young single mother Sarah (Hillary Berg) and her daughter Rainy (RainLeigh Vick). Sarah wants Rainy to grow up strong and not make the same mistakes she did, but she is well aware that she still makes mistakes.
More of a mosaic than a linear narrative, even minor characters start to reappear because of the reality of living in a small town. Almost every shot bursts with life as it is lived in Kalispell, and several memorable sequences have the concise impact of an imagist poem.
— James Kreul
When is an RV more than an RV? When it’s the symbol of a personal crisis. A neglected camper is at the center of The Lesson, a fine drama about a Bulgarian schoolteacher who may lose her home in foreclosure.
In a remarkable performance, Margita Gosheva plays tense Lena, whose life devolves into chaos after she learns her slacker husband (Ivan Barnev) has lied about the loan payments he was supposed to be making. They could raise money by selling that RV, but it is stalled in front of their front gate, an inconvenient reminder of their dilemma.
A proud, practical woman, Lena investigates a series of options, including borrowing money from her distant father (Ivan Savov) or a sleazeball loan shark (Stefan Denolyubov). These scenes unfold with aching suspense. She finally hits on a solution that I won’t reveal — except to say that it makes her view a series of classroom thefts in a new light.
— Kenneth Burns